It was a story that seemed too good to be true, and in fact it was.
Twenty-one years ago in the spring of 2000, a 19-year-old shortstop named Rafael Furcal jumped all the way from Class-A to the Atlanta Braves, who were then coming off a fifth World Series in nine years. Furcal not only made the team, but quickly won a starting job and was chosen as National League Rookie of the Year.
Trouble was, Furcal was actually 22, not 19.
As with many players from the Dominican Republic in that era, Furcal had falsified his age as an amateur. Furcal later said his youth baseball coach believed (probably correctly) that a 16-year-old with Furcal’s skill set had a better chance of landing a pro contract than a 19-year-old with similar abilities.
No one knew that at the time, of course, and Furcal wouldn’t admit the ruse until he’d been in the major leagues for almost two years (and even then, he wasn’t completely truthful). And after star center fielder Andruw Jones had shown similar maturity beyond his years a half-decade earlier as a (legitimate) 19-year-old, why would they suspect he wasn’t the age he claimed to be?
Indeed, the Braves could hardly believe their good fortune when Furcal emerged as the club’s leadoff hitter when a season-ending knee injury to second baseman Quilvio Veras in July 2000 coincided with the sudden decline of shortstop Walt Weiss. Furcal batted .295/.394/.382 with four home runs and 37 RBIs and led National League rookies in OBP, runs (87) and steals (40), easily besting St. Louis pitcher Rick Ankiel for Rookie of the Year honors.
“He didn’t seem overwhelmed at all, at any turn,” Braves general manager John Schuerholz told the Atlanta Journal Constitution in November 2000. “There were times you felt more comfortable with him up at the plate and needing an RBI than anybody. You’d feel more confident with a ball hit to him than anybody. It’s remarkable.”
Then listing his date of birth as Aug. 27, 1980, Furcal signed with the Braves in November of 1996. He got into 50 games as a second baseman with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Braves in 1997, batting .258 with 31 runs scored and 15 steals.
Furcal’s first mention in the AJC came in July of 1998, when it was noted that “Danville Braves second baseman Rafael Furcal, 18, leads the Appalachian League with 22 steals and is hitting .439.” He ended that season hitting .328/.412/.414 with an astounding 60 steals in 66 games, and was rated Baseball America’s No. 60 overall prospect heading in 1999.
Hoping to better utilize his rocket throwing arm, the Braves moved Furcal to shortstop full-time in 1999, when he began the season at Low Class A Macon. He tied the South Atlantic League record with five steals in a game in late April, and by the end of May led all of the minor leagues with 40 steals (but also 19 errors).
Furcal made the Sally League All-Star team, heading into the break with 48 steals. By that time, he’d begun to openly discuss the idea of stealing 100 bases in a season, which no minor-leaguer had done since the early 1980s.
“Raffy is special,” Macon manager Jeff Treadway (a former Braves second baseman) told the AJC in June 1999. “If there is a better prospect in this league, I haven’t seen him.”
Furcal played in the MLB All-Star Futures Game in Boston in mid-July, and was promoted to High-A Myrtle Beach shortly thereafter. He kept right on running, stealing 23 bases in 43 games with the Pelicans after swiping 73 in 83 games at Macon.
When added with the four bases he stole in Myrtle Beach’s five playoff games, Furcal pilfered an even 100 for the season (though the official register shows 96). More importantly, he posted a .392 on-base percentage in 126 games, showing the kind of skills that pegged him as a future leadoff hitter whenever the big-league Braves needed him (likely not until 2001 or 2002, it was then believed).
With the team coming off a World Series appearance and Walt Weiss under contract for 2000, there was no reason to rush Furcal to the majors. The Braves also still had veteran Ozzie Guillen as insurance for the oft-injured Weiss.
And Atlanta didn’t need a leadoff man either after acquiring Veras from San Diego that December. (That blockbuster deal, which also sent outfielder Reggie Sanders to the Braves for second baseman Bret Boone and first baseman/outfielder Ryan Klesko, was overshadowed in Atlanta and nationally that week by the publication of the now-infamous Jeff Pearlman profile of John Rocker in Sports Illustrated.)
Furcal was Baseball America’s No. 8 prospect entering 2000, and even after leading the Dominican Winter League in hits, runs and OBP still appeared ticketed for Double-A Greenville (or perhaps Triple-A Richmond). He earned an invitation to big-league spring training camp, and played so well the Braves simply couldn’t get rid of him.
Furcal batted .289 with two homers and five steals in the spring, and by late March indications were he had a good shot to make the major-league club as a back-up to both Veras and Weiss. On March 31, the Braves released the 36-year-old Guillen, clinch a spot on the Opening Day roster for Furcal, whom they believed was merely 19 years old.
“He’s exactly what we heard,” manager Bobby Cox told the AJC. “He’s a good infielder. He’s got the best arm in baseball, maybe, as an infielder right now. He’s always hit.”
Furcal made his major-league debut in the Braves’ second game of 2000, playing shortstop and batting eighth against the Colorado Rockies at Turner Field. He went 2-for-4 in a 5-4 Braves loss, singling off Rolando Arrojo in the sixth inning for his first major-league hit.
Furcal played roughly every other day for much of April, but took over as the Braves’ full-time shortstop when Weiss went on the disabled list with a hamstring strain in early May. Furcal hit .397/.444/.448 with 13 runs in 15 games during Weiss’ absence, and held onto the starting job for the remainder of the season other than when he missed three weeks in June and July with hamstring trouble of his own.
Furcal’s life got a little complicated in mid-June, when he was arrested on June 10 and charged with driving under the influence. Strangely, he was not charged with underage drinking — and there’s a good reason why, as it turns out.
Two days later, HBO’s Real Sports reported that Furcal was actually 22, and not 19. Reporters covering the Braves weren’t sure what to make of that revelation, and mostly shrugged.
“About the age thing, we can giggle,” Mark Bradley of the AJC wrote on June 14, 2000. “Ballplayers giggle all the time. Conventional wisdom holds that the birthday of any player born south of Florida is an estimate. … Now here’s Furcal, who can pass for 19 but who might be old enough to take a legal drink.”
Before Furcal’s arrest made it through the court system (he was ultimately given probation), his role with the Braves expanded even further. Veras suffered a torn ACL in a rundown on July 13 vs. Baltimore, not only handing Furcal the full-time second base position, but the leadoff spot as well.
He took the job and ran with it, posting a .401 on-base percentage with 27 steals and 50 runs scored from July 17 until the end of the season. The Braves finished 95-67 and won the NL East by a single game over the New York Mets, their ninth consecutive division title.
Furcal battled the flu during the postseason and went just 1-for-11 during the three-game National League Division Series. The Braves were swept by the St. Louis Cardinals, failing to at least reach the League Championship Series for the first time since 1990.
During that series, Furcal continued to field questions about his age. He insisted he was just 20 years old, having celebrated his birthday on Aug. 24.
“Right now, I don’t care about that,” Furcal (who by all accounts was conversant, if not fluent, in English at that point) told the AJC. “I want to concentrate on the game and help my team.”
The controversy didn’t keep Furcal from becoming the Braves’ fourth Rookie of the Year since the franchise moved to Atlanta, joining Earl Williams (1971), Bob Horner (1978) and David Justice (1990). He won the award rather easily, receiving 25 of 32 first-place votes (Ankiel got six, while Mets outfielder Jay Payton got the other one).
Weiss retired after the 2000 season, leaving the shortstop position to Furcal on a permanent basis. (Veras returned in 2001, but was released that August and replaced by future All-Star Marcus Giles.)
Furcal’s numbers tailed off considerable in his sophomore year, as he was hitting just .275/.321/.370 with 22 steals in 79 games when he dislocated a troublesome left shoulder (which he’d injured twice in the minor leagues) while sliding into second base in June and needed season-ending surgery. Rookie Mark DeRosa and later trade acquisition Rey Sanchez filled in at shortstop for the remainder of the season, as the Braves won another division title and lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLCS.
The world changed during that 2001 season, as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 led the United States to tighten its immigration policies. Falsifying biographical information would become much more difficult, and consequently a number of foreign-born Major League Baseball Players saw their listed ages suddenly change. (Just prior to 9/11, a baseball age controversy dominated the 2001 Little League World Series, as Dominican-born pitcher Danny Almonte, star of the Bronx, N.Y. all-star team, was revealed to be 14, two years older than the LLWS limit.)
“All told, we’ve counted a dozen players on major-league rosters this spring who have discovered that age is more than a state of mind,” ESPN’s Jayson Stark wrote in February 2002. “And the commissioner’s office estimates that when minor-league players begin arriving at spring training next month, as many as 100 of them will show up with different birth dates than they had when they left.”
One of those players was Furcal, who finally admitted upon arriving at spring training in late February that he’d lied about his age. He told reporters he was born in 1978, rather than 1980 as had been previously reported, making him 23 in 2002 rather than 21 (this was also not accurate, but we’ll get to that later) and had been deceptive about his age at the advice of his Dominican youth league coach.
“That’s what the guy told me,” Furcal told the AJC. “He said if you want to play baseball, you have to change your age. … So that’s what I did. I wanted to play.”
Cox appeared to take the revelation in stride, joking “he’s matured. Ah, we’ll take two years.”
Schuerholz didn’t appear troubled either, telling Stark, “When Rafael Furcal goes deep in the hole, backhands a ball and throws a laser across the diamond, or he runs to first base in 3.6 seconds, I don’t think anybody will care if he’s 21 or 23.”
Clearly, the Braves didn’t seem to mind that Furcal was older than they’d previously believed. So was it really a problem for baseball?
In a way yes, considering how much age (and related projections on skill development and decline) is a factor when it comes to signing bonuses and salaries. A team would certainly be more likely to give a multi-million-dollar bonus to a 16-year-old who likely hadn’t come close to reaching his athletic potential (as opposed to a 19-year-old, whose “ceiling” was more of a known quantity).
And likewise with established major-leaguers, a team would be more likely to give a long-term, big-dollar extension to an All-Star player they believed to be 25, rather than one who was 28. The younger player would be more likely to still be productive by the end of that contract than the older one would.
Furcal returned from his shoulder injury to play in 154 games in 2002, and made his first All-Star team in 2003 when he batted .292/.352/.443 with 130 runs scored and a league-best 10 triples. It was that August that Furcal became the 12th player in MLB history to turn an unassisted triple play, when he snagged a line drive off the bat of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Woody Williams, stepped on second base for the second out and tagged an arriving baserunner for the third.
Furcal wasn’t quite as good in 2004, and by July the AJC’s Bradley suggested he might be trade bait. Bradley noted in the same column that Furcal “turns 26 next month.”
That wasn’t true, as came to light that September.
Furcal was arrested a second time for DUI on Sept. 10, 2004, when he was clocked driving his Mercedes 90 mph in suburban Cobb County. Follow-up news reports in the AJC detailing Furcal’s arrest indicated he was 26, but also that he would turn 27 on Oct. 24.
For the second time, Furcal had aged overnight — this time by 10 months. His date of birth has since been listed as Oct. 24, 1977, meaning he was 22 for the entirety of his rookie season of 2000.
(It’s not entirely clear when the world caught on to Furcal’s second age-related deception, or how he got it past immigration authorities following 9/11. No reporting in the AJC mentioned it at the time. A common “baseball birthdays” feature that was distributed by the Associated Press and that appeared in several newspapers during that period listed Furcal as turning 25 on Aug. 24, 2003 and turning 27 on Oct. 24, 2004.)
Still on probation from his 2000 DUI arrest, Furcal was this time sentenced to 21 days in jail. A sympathetic judge allowed him to begin serving his sentence once the Braves’ season ended.
Atlanta lost to the Houston Astros in five games in the 2004 NLDS, but Furcal provided one of the few Braves highlights. He ripped a two-run home run in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 2 to give his team a 4-2 victory, the only postseason walk-off homer in Atlanta Braves history.
Furcal served his three-week sentence at the Cobb County Jail without incident, and returned to the Braves in good graces for 2005. He played in 154 games, scoring 100 runs, hitting 12 homers and setting career-highs with 46 steals and 11 triples as Atlanta once again reached the postseason (and once again lost to the Astros in the NLDS, including an excruciating 18-inning defeat in the clinching Game 4).
Furcal became a free agent after the 2005 season, and the Braves showed little interest in retaining him. In early December, he signed a three-year, $39 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. (The Braves moved quickly to replace him, trading third base prospect Andy Marte to Boston for Edgar Renteria, a four-time All-Star. Renteria had two excellent seasons in Atlanta before he was traded to Detroit.)
Furcal’s first season with the Dodgers was the best of his career to that point, though he declined sharply in 2007. He suffered a back injury early in 2008 that limited him to only 36 games.
Nevertheless, the Dodgers re-signed Furcal to a three-year, $36-million contract after the 2008 season. In 2011, the Dodgers dealt him to the St. Louis Cardinals at the July 31 trading deadline.
Furcal started all 18 games for the Cardinals that postseason, winning a World Series ring as St. Louis rallied past the Texas Rangers in seven games. He re-signed with the Cardinals for two seasons and $13 million that December, and made his final All-Star team at age 34 in 2012.
That August, Furcal injured his throwing elbow and missed the remainder of the season and all of 2013 following Tommy John surgery. After failed comeback attempts with the Miami Marlins and Kansas City Royals, Furcal abruptly retired in May 2015 at age 37.
In 1,614 big-league games spread over 14 seasons, Furcal hit .281/.346/.402 (a slightly below average OPS+ of 96), with 1,063 runs scored, 113 home runs, 587 RBIs and 314 steals. A three-time All-Star, he was worth 39.5 Wins Above Replacement, 21.9 of that coming in his six seasons with the Braves. (That bWAR total ranks 11th among hitters in Atlanta Braves history, just behind Darrell Evans and ahead of the likes of Horner, Ron Gant and Terry Pendleton.)
Twenty-one years ago this month, the Braves believed Furcal was a teenager with limitless potential. He wasn’t a teenager and his post-2000 production was a disappointment to some, but it would be difficult to say his Atlanta career wasn’t successful on the whole.
Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. No, that’s not his real name.
Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; Newspapers.com; ESPN.com